Thursday, May 20, 2010

Challenge update: pot pie with the world's best biscuit recipe

As some in our reading public may know, we have been really busy lately... and so many cooking/eating events have come and gone without making it onto the blob. We keep hope alive, and take photos, in case of having time, a little of which I have right now.

I wanted to let everyone know, the challenge has been going really well. Almost all of the weird, semi-abandoned containers of who-knows-what have been rescued from the freezer, and with a couple minor (best not to think about it) exceptions, eaten! I want to share one of these with you.

It was some kind of beef stew to begin with, made with onions and carrots, and maybe some red wine. I think I made it (unless our dad gave it to us) but I can't remember when, no idea actually. It was in the freezer in a quart container, but there wasn't enough there to make a good meal for three hungry people. I decided to turn it into a pot pie, since we always have flour for making biscuits, and all that biscuit topping makes for more food for everybody!

So I peeled and cubed up 3 potatoes and 3 carrots, and par boiled them with some edamame in salted water, until tender. I mixed them in with the stew (thus doubling the volume of stew!) and then made my biscuit dough. This is the only baked-good recipe I have memorized (I should be ashamed if I can't remember it, since it has nearly nothing in it) (I love recipes with nearly nothing in them, have you noticed?)

preheat oven to 450

2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp baking powder
1/3 cup vegetable shortening or butter
2/3 cup milk

In a big-ish bowl mix the flour, salt and baking powder. Add the shortening or butter, and using either a fork or a pastry blender, cut the fat into the flour until most of it is broken up, some pieces looking about the size of a pea, but a lot of it can be even smaller. It should look like crumb topping.
Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the milk. Use your fork to mix it around and get it evenly mixed in. Now here's the step it took me years of biscuit making to really get - even though they say you shouldn't over-work short dough like this, you also shouldn't under work it, did you know that?? So turn out your sort of shaggy looking dough onto a clean countertop and knead it - just maybe 5 times, just till it holds together. Then you roll it out, cut it into the shapes you want (I tend to cut it into squares these days because I hate re-rolling scraps), put them on a baking sheet and bake for about 12 minutes, until golden brown.
For the pot pie, I just laid it on top of the stew in a baking dish, and baked it all together for about 15 minutes. It was good.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

easy pantry pasta

After that Lebanese cheap-as-heck-have-it-all-in-my-pantry Mjuddra recipe, I want to share with you another super-cheap-there-isn't-any-food-in-the-house-what-will-we-make-for-dinner staple of our childhood (and, in fact, adulthood), this time Italian, which our Mom always used to make (though our Dad is the Italian one; Mama's honorary Italian-Lebanese since she can cook all this stuff beautifully). She had a number of variations, and I feel like we always had it on fridays (being Catholics we always had fish, or at least no meat, on fridays). We called it Pasta with Anchovy Sauce, a name which sounds great to me, but which (I fear) will elicit a grimace/shudder from the general population. I can't deny it - my love for fish in cans (of practically all kinds) is very strong. Believe me, the anchovies melt right into the olive oil, you don't even know they're there! It just tastes great - rich, salty, garlicky, yummy. Plus, there are practically no ingredients.

The basic recipe is to heat about 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil in a large sauce pan (full disclosure:
I never measure, I just have a big wide frying pan that fits a pound of pasta, and I cover the bottom generously with oil), add anywhere from 3 to 5 thinly sliced garlic cloves, and a can of anchovies (with or without the oil they're packed in, I usually don't use it). Keep the heat on medium low at most, low if your garlic is getting brown, for a good 15 minutes at least, mashing at the anchovies with a wooden spoon, till they break down completely into a kind of brown paste. You want your garlic to get super soft and infuse into the oil, you don't want it brown and crisp up.

At this point, you could toss in your al dente pasta (any shape is great, boil it in generously salted water), grate on some black pepper, sprinkle with grated parmigiano, and eat it; you'd already have a total flavor sensation as well as a rich, satisfying (cheap!) meal on your hands. But many variations are possible. Some ideas for additions:

crushed red pepper
sliced onions
sliced bell peppers
sliced jalapenos (one of my mom's favorite additions I seem to remember)
any vegetable cut into bite sized pieces
sun dried tomato, sliced or chopped
halved grape tomatoes (add them off the heat with the pasta)
grated lemon zest
lemon juice
pitted olives

This time our friend Reba was staying with us, in town so she could work (like a champ) on her thesis; on her way home she picked up a head of broccoli and a package of baby spinach (I had never thought of this idea, and man was it great!). So I cut up the broccoli pretty small, and threw that in with my penne for the last couple of minutes of boiling, and added the spinach right to the olive oil/garlic/anchovy mix in the big pan (to which I had added crushed red pepper and capers); the spinach wilted right down beautifully, and I drained and added the pasta and broccoli (saving a little of the pasta water in case of needing to loosen things up, which I did end up needing to do). I sprinkled on some grated cheese, and tossed it all around. Pretty good.

But my favorite part of this iteration of the dish was that I decided to make some garlicky toasted bread crumbs, for topping each serving (Mama never did this, I think I got this from Mario Batali or Lydia Bastianich). I took a big fat slice of some bread I had made the day before and removed the crust (this would probably equal 2 or 3 slices of store sliced bread). I tore the bread up into the food processor, and added 2 cloves of garlic, which I had chopped up a bit to help it disperse evenly among the bread crumbs. I let the food processor go until the bread crumbs were fairly small. I heated 2 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan, and added the breadcrumb/garlic mixture. You want to stir it around to get the fat to evenly coat all the crumbs, and then cook, stirring pretty regularly, until the crumbs turn a nice golden brown. Like toasting nuts, the crumbs will continue to get darker after you've turned off the heat, so stop a little before they look quite as brown as you want them.
A final word or two - of course you can leave out the anchovies if you want. But will you try them? Maybe just once? You might like them! Try using a half a can your first time. And also: yes, there are little bones in the anchovy filets. They're fine! You can chew them right up, it's no problem. You won't even know they're there, plus I'm sure they must contain a lot of nice calcium, so they're good for you.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I know, that doesn't look like a real word. It's a phonetic approximation of an arabic word, the name of this wonderful (and wonderfully cheap) dish I'm going to tell you about. It's Lebanese style lentils and rice, and our dad (being half Lebanese) makes this all the time. There are very few ingredients, but if you do it right it's incredibly rich and delicious; paired with a salad that has lots of leafy greens, cucumber, dried mint, olive oil and lemon juice, it's pretty much a perfect plate of food. And did I mention cheap? This is a good recipe to make when you are home all day with some other task to accomplish (like practicing the piano for 7 hours), because most of it is hands off, and it only gets better as it sits. In fact, we ate leftovers from this batch for more than a week, and it was delicious the whole time (and a source of blessedly fast easy dinners and lunches over the course of many busy days for all of us).

Mjuddrah (Mmm-zhud-druh with a nice arabic rolled r) is made magically wonderful by the huge amounts of caramelized onions it contains (a universally recognized truth is that the smell of frying onions is one of the world's most wonderful smells). My dad usually fries up an extra little batch of onions for topping the lentils with afterwards (a practice I highly recommend). When I made it this time, I put such an enormous amount of onions into the mix to begin with that I felt more onions weren't needed. I must admit I missed the extra super brown onions on top (as a child they were absolutely my favorite part, in fact I think I wished I could be eating a whole plate of fried onions and skip the lentils and rice), so I'll do them from now on (you should too).

1 cup lentils
1 1/2 cups brown basmati rice (or whatever kind you have)
1/4 to 1/2 cup good olive oil
4 onions (if they had been large, maybe 3, mine were quite average)
5 cloves garlic
2 tsp toasted cumin seed
salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper
1 1/2 quarts stock or water or some combination thereof

Begin with your lentils and your rice. I used regular brown lentils, and brown basmati rice. I let them both soak in plenty of cold water while I worked on the onions.
I sliced up (pole to pole) 4 onions. Yes, 4. Believe me (more than 4 would not have hurt matters). I put at least 1/4 cup of olive oil in my big enameled cast iron pot, heated it up, and added the onions along with salt and pepper (the salt gets the onions to release their juices and break down a little quicker. I stayed with the onions (on high heat) while they got to softening up, and then turned it way down and let them go, coming back occasionally to stir, for maybe 20 minutes. Then I chopped up about 5 cloves of garlic, and ground up about 2 teaspoons toasted cumin seeds. When the onions were seriously deep golden brown, I added the garlic, the cumin, and a bit of crushed red pepper flakes.
Then I drained the rice from its soaking liquid and threw it in the pot with the onions. I turned up the heat and let the rice dry-toast in the oil for a little while.
Then I added about a quart and a half of liquid (I used part stock, part water - you could use all water, or all stock, up to you and what you happen to have in the house). Then I added some salt (maybe 2 tsp), stirred it up, brought it to a boil, and thinking that brown rice takes 45 minutes and lentils take 20, I let the brown rice simmer over low heat, covered, for about 15 minutes. Next time, I'd only do it for 5, because the rice cooked a lot quicker than expected and was almost perfectly done when I added the drained lentils. When those went in, I brought it back to the boil, covered it and put it in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. If you were to use white rice instead of brown, I would (from the stage of the onions being nice and golden) add the liquid to the onions first, bring it to the boil, add salt and then put the lentils in first, for five minutes, then add the rice, and after bringing back to the boil, cook covered, in the oven or on lowest heat on the stovetop, for another 17 minutes.
If you wanted (and I really think you should), you could save out a small pan-full (3/4 cup maybe) of the caramelized onions from the first step, which you could continue to fry till super golden and almost crispy, to put on top of each serving (or you could slice up another onion to fry up, if you don't think of it in time to save some out of the first batch). Don't forget that nice lemony minty salad, and maybe some warm pita bread. In FACT, putting all that (mjuddrah, salad, pita) together into a wrap or pocket sandwich is a GREAT idea. If you had some hummus nearby, that wouldn't hurt in there either. Maybe some shredded carrots too! Mmm.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Coconut Delights with Marzipan and Cranberries

That name is a total goof, but I really have no idea what else to call them. We had 8 egg whites in the fridge that were leftover from some things we only need yolks for and Elaine instructed me to make Angel Food Cake. But I don't like Angel Food Cake and anyway the recipe called for 12 egg whites and what is the point of making something to use up your egg whites if you are just generating extra yolks? So then I thought I'd make meringues...but I had too many egg whites for a standard recipe and I don't really like meringues that much either so there was no point in making a double batch, let alone one batch. Then I settled on macaroons. But didn't really look up a recipe. So these did NOT turn out like macaroons at all. But they were delicious, so here is what I did.

I had:
1/2 a package of marzipan
1 15 oz package of sweetened coconut flakes
1 can (no idea how big) of Goya coconut creme
1/2 cup (or so) dried cranberries
8 egg whites
1 pinch salt
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 cup flour

I diced up the marzipan and mixed it with the coconut flakes, coconut creme and cranberries. Then I whipped up the egg whites in the kitchen aid mixer with a pinch of salt, a 1/4 tsp cream of tartar and 3/4 cup sugar until they formed stiff peaks, similar to when you're making meringues. My thought at this stage was that I would just mix the egg whites with the marzipan/coconut/coconut creme/cranberry mixture and make....cookies? This was a pretty silly idea as the batter was clearly going to be so liquidy from the coconut creme. The egg whites fell completely as soon as I mixed them into the rest of the ingredients and there was no chance of anything close to a cookie. We mixed in about 2/3 cup flour and it was still not able to hold any kind of shape. So, we went back to where it started and poured the batter into the Angel Food Cake pan and baked it at 350 degrees for probably 45 minutes.

It started to get really brown on the outside before the middle was done so we took it out and although we were able to slice it no problem and although it tasted GREAT, is was super gooey, too gooey on the inside. Sort of like coconut candy. Elaine had the brilliant idea of slicing the cake up and baking the slices again, similar to the method used for making biscotti. Good job, Elaine! She baked the slices at 425 degrees for another 30 minutes (she wants me to mention that she baked them on a silicone baking mat and she is not sure what would have happened if she didn't). They came out perfectly golden brown all over, crunchy on the outside and slightly chewy on the inside. These are really sweet, but the cranberries give a nice burst of much needed tartness. Overall, a success.